Harold Wilson - The Forgotten Father of Modern Britain

9 Mar 2016


This Friday marks 100 years since the birth of Harold Wilson – twice Prime Minister and three times General Election winner (four if you count the hung parliament of February 1974). As Labour leader he won more elections than any other and maintained high approval ratings throughout both his stints as PM. Barry Sheerman ­­- Labour MP for Wilson’s birthplace of Huddersfield is calling for a statue of Wilson to be erected in the atrium at the entrance to the House of Commons, alongside the iconic figures of Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee and Thatcher to honour the centenary of his birth.



Each one of those names deserves to be there. Lloyd George's social reforms formed the basis for what would become the welfare state and he led us through the First World War. Churchill led Britain against the Nazis during the Second World War, while Attlee rebuilt the country and expanded the welfare state into its modern form afterwards . Thatcher, although I personally despise much of what she stood for and almost all of her actions as Prime Minister, tackled the desperate inflation crisis and left the trade unions with a more justifiable degree of power than the stranglehold they held before her premiership. Wilson too deserves to stand tall in the Commons atrium. If Attlee is the grandfather of modern Britain and Thatcher the mother then Harold Wilson must be the father of the Britain we enjoy living in today.  



Wilson’s pioneering social reforms gave people greater freedom of choice in areas of their lives that ought not to have been the concern of the state. Indeed, he and his Home Secretary Roy Jenkins set huge precedents for social liberalisation. The legalisation of gay marriage in the last couple of years owes a great deal to their decriminalisation of sex between consenting men. Wilson removed censorship of theatre productions by the government, ending what was almost the final example of state censorship of media and entertainment. His government ended the pointless killing of murderers by abolishing the death penalty, saving us the inefficiencies of America’s death row. His relaxing of rules regarding abortion and divorce empowered women to have more control over their own lives. Wilson lowered the voting age - putting it in line with the legal age of adulthood for the first time and forcing future party leaders and governments to care more about young people. All of these are things that we still enjoy today and have formed the basis of modern society. In fact, many of these reforms have been expanded even further, such as gay rights, but also divorce, abortion and (in Scotland at least) the voting age too. 



When it comes to education, Wilson and Education Secretary Anthony Crosland's reforms are the very essence of our modern system. The two believed that, rather than separating people at age 11 based on academic ability, a system of mixed schools would be far more beneficial for academic improvement and social mobility. In the days of grammar schools, technical colleges and secondary moderns, two thirds of middle class boys passed the eleven plus and went to grammar school, whilst just one third of working class boys got that opportunity. And there were far less places for girls in grammar schools than for boys. Anyone who went to a secondary modern did not have any opportunity to get qualifications, so 75% of all students left school unqualified. The other 25% (most of them middle class) had a huge advantage when looking for work. And upper class students got to skip the eleven plus altogether and get high quality education based on their family’s wealth rather than their talent. The system had a vast number of flaws beyond the ones mentioned and Wilson and Crosland understood this. Under Wilson's government Britain's three-tier education system was dismantled and mixed ability comprehensive education was massively expanded. All students got the chance to be qualified with the introduction of Britain's first public exams for all secondary students – CSEs. This system went on to be reformed further but is still central to our education system today and is a constant reminder of Wilson’s legacy. 



Wilson's government also did a lot of other things that made a huge difference to society and that we still enjoy the fruits of today, chief among which was establishing the Open University. The OU gives people the chance to re-educate in their spare time and has helped thousands of adults obtain further qualifications so that they can finally follow their dreams. Wilson and Transport Minister Barbara Castle also allowed the use of breathalysers by the police and introduced the first legal alcohol limit for driving which helped, and still does help, cut down rates of drink-related deaths. In 1967 Wilson's government introduced the Family Planning Act allowing for NHS hospitals to give away free condoms and offer advice on conception and contraception, while the Clean Air Act of 1968 gave local authorities new powers to reduce pollution. 



Wilson’s government wasn't perfect. He failed when it came to the economy, with inflation running at 10% and the balance of trade deficit left by Macmillan and Douglas-Home's governments continuing. All attempts to sort these issues out failed. In foreign affairs Wilson managed to alienate both the Labour Left and President Johnson over the Vietnam War by supporting the US-led conflict but refusing to aid America with troops. But on the EEC (European Economic Community), although his government's request to join was rejected (chiefly due to French President De Gaulle's stubbornness), Wilson managed to hold Labour together and won the referendum on Britain’s membership in 1975. Industrial relations, meanwhile, were another sticky issue for Wilson's government with attempted trade union controls being resisted by the unions themselves and the Labour Left, however he set the agenda by being the first Prime Minister since the war to try and restrict union power. 



Harold Wilson achieved so much as Prime Minister that forms the basis of modern Britain, and yet everyone always forgets how much of what we experience today is his legacy and to quite what extent he shaped our lives. It's time that Wilson was given the recognition that he deserves as the architect of a more liberal society, a fairer and more egalitarian education system, and a long lasting legacy of change. It's time that we remember a man who I could be justified in calling the father of modern Britain, and what better way to do it than by building a statue of him alongside its other key architects. It's time to give Wilson the recognition he deserves and remind us all of the things we owe to him and his amazing cabinet.



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